Monday, September 29, 2014

Cockroft Column - Cronyism and Failure in Oklahoma's Education Department

Although I continue to be an advocate for education reform, I think it is clear the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi is the wrong person for the job. Not only has she continued to fail state schools on a number of leadership fronts, she has now resorting to cronyism in her hiring practices, which is almost comical considering how little time there will be until a new superintendent cleans house.
    My colleague State Representative Jason Smalley, myself, and many others are calling for the resignation of Barresi and two staffers, Dr. Larry Birney and Kim Richey. The hire of Dr. Birney resulted in the resignation of a longtime and respected member of the office, Lynn Jones. Birney, who has not worked in education before, was the spouse of Kim Richey, the general counsel. Hiring him was not illegal, but Oklahomans have long recognized nepotism or cronyism as an immoral practice in state government. When it causes good employees to resign, it is effectively burning down the house before the new superintendent comes on. A new position was created to hire Birney, which also means taxpayer dollars were spent to fund this nepotism to the tune of $90,000 per year. 
    Due to this situation, I am looking into possible legislation which would prevent outgoing state officials and lawmakers who have been defeated in their election from making non-essential hires or creating new positions. I believe if an individual has been defeated within the democratic process, their constituents have clearly spoken their desire to move on. There should be no reasonable reason to create new positions or hire for non-essential positions. Unfortunately, this latest move is not uncommon in state government. Oftentimes outgoing officials will spend budgets and hire individuals rapidly, leaving very little for their successor to begin with. Simple legislation could fix this problem. 
    After last week’s release of the latest A-F scores, I am hearing of and seeing the failures in the implementation of the A-F grading system. A lot of money that could have been put into other projects has now gone down the drain as we continue to push a testing system that has not been properly calibrated or executed. I think the A-F system was an ambitious project to infuse accountability and transparency into our educational system. However, it’s implementation has been horrible at best. It needs to include a great deal of input from local schools during every step of the process and to this point, state officials have refused to do this. Many factors such as attendance rates and poverty levels are graded, putting rural schools at an immediate disadvantage. While many schools within my district continue to struggle based upon the state’s grading system, I will continue to stand by them because I know the other side of the story. Instead of seeing a letter grade based on incomplete data, I see administrators, teachers, and parents alike who put everything they have into our local schools. We aren’t without our struggles for sure, but I have much more confidence in them than our state does. 

    Change cannot come soon enough to the highest education office in Oklahoma. I look forward to working with whoever replaces Barresi as we try to create positive momentum for Oklahoma students.


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  2. Josh--I sincerely wish officials from government and from education could come together and actually share their perspectives in an enlightening, non-threatening, non-politicized way, with a view toward reconcilliation and collaboration. The results would be magical. As it stands, neither side seems to have the faintest idea what the other side is seeing.

    As a teacher, I see what goes on at school and hear my colleagues---and as a conservative Republican, I also hear what our party has to say--it will be a wonderful day when the two can lower their hackles, put down their swords, and actually meet in the middle.

    We hear horror accounts about how the unions prevent lousy teachers from being fired. Okay---fair enough--that needs to be fixed. But why throw the baby out with the bath water? Has anybody considered finding a middle-ground position that would hamstring union overreaches while still providing some common sense tenure protections to the rest of the teachers? At some schools, if the football star gets put on the ineligible list or some school-board president's kid gets written up for insubordination, suddenly, the TEACHER is is trouble. Why? Because at some schools the administration may be more interested in keeping influential members of the community happy than in standing by what's right--so the teacher suddenly supposedly "has classroom management issues". I'm not in a union, btw--but it's naive to the extreme to not acknowledge the existence of such abusive situations. Yet strangely, nobody talks about that side of the issue.

    Then there's testing---ah, yes, gotta hold the teachers accountable, right?. Does the public know that the tests have cut scores that are constantly changing, to the point where those tests are a moving target? Is the public aware of the gargantuan amounts of time taken up by all of this inane testing or of the educational objectives that are slighted just so teachers can hammer on what's going to be on the test?

    And then there's teacher pay. When reports come out about how much teachers supposedly are paid, does the public have any idea that they're lumping together the pay that top administrators receive right in with that of first year beginning teachers? Does the public (or even our congress, for that matter) know just how much they sock teachers for just to pay for insurance for their wives and kids? If you took average teacher pay of ONLY normal classroom teachers, subtracted what is charged for normal deductions and insurance for dependents, took out average taxes, and determined just how much teachers are really taking home, another story would emerge, and it wouldn't be hard to understand why our experienced teachers are leaving the profession by the droves.

    I'm just scratching the surface here and bringing up a couple of hot-button issues. There's also A-F "school report cards", vouchers, and a whole host of other matters as well. It's time for a SERIOUS meeting of the minds between government leaders and the public education community with a view toward seeking solutions. There is a scripture that says "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free". I think that same concept applies here---it's time to get past the politics and really get down to what each side's concerns REALLY are. Once we, the teachers, actually see that happening, you'd be amazed at how "on-board" we could be with proposed solutions.